Were We Happy Then?

An untouched shelf of scrapbooks graces my study.

For about seven years, I scrapbooked.  I started rather narcissistically with my childhood pictures stored at my mother’s home.  They were housed in those cling-page albums which I’d just discovered damaged photos, causing paper deterioration and fading.  Knowing my mom would hate to lose all visual memories of her only daughter (cue violin), I rather reluctantly took up scrapbooking.

As background information, I’ll disclose that I flunked cutting, pasting, and coloring in kindergarten and first grade.  I could read, write, and do math with ease by age five, but I cared little for carefully coloring and cutting pictures that began with the letter B, then pasting them into their proper worksheet page.  Perhaps glue sticks would have spared me one of these failures, but this was 35 years ago.  White pots with gooey paste to be spread with splayed brushes ruled the classroom of my childhood, and neatness seemed impossible with such crude tools.  Cutting and coloring?  Boring and best done as quickly as possible.

So when I approached my neighborhood scrapbooking lady, a nearby friend, I told her I wanted to create a simple scrapbook to rescue these pictures for my mother.  No frills, minimal tools, and quick results.  I revealed my early elementary traumas t0 her, and she quickly set me to work, teaching me how to use cutting tools and templates, double-sided adhesives and stickers.  She was reassuring and endlessly patient.  Fairly quickly, I filled two large albums.  My mother was delighted.  I was hooked.

For the next seven years, I chronicled our lives in scrapbooks.  I created a baby album for my oldest, who had the misfortune to be born before I understood the importance of taking pictures in numbers with the limits of 12 by 12 pages in mind.  No more single shots.  Think in threes or fours for a single page, more for a double spread.  Think themes and colors.  Plan ahead for scrapbooking.  While I never graduated to grommets or stamping, I developed a modest assortment of paper and the like.  I stuck to my quick pages, enjoying seeing the albums fill more than creating a single page that could be designated a work of art.  I wanted to preserve our happiness.

The caption reads, "It's not the home I love, but the life that is lived there."

But the happiness stopped.  Not all of a sudden, not ever completely, but finding it thought the viewfinder became increasingly difficult.  By 2007, looking at the pictures brought fewer smiles and pleasant memories.  Sure, the kids’ birthdays and milestones still brought pleasure, but whole-family shots were less common and almost always tinged with memories of an argument or strain with my then-husband.  While I’ve heard it said that our memories of past events are shaped by our current situation, the few family shots from this time felt like lies.  Family vacations had ceased.  Holidays were filled with stress.  My then-husband graced fewer and fewer pictures, and by 2008, the number of pictures I took fell dramatically.

My last scrapbooking work took place in March 2008.  At a local hotel, I spent two days scrapbooking, stopping only to eat and sleep. This was my second such event, and it was a break from an increasingly rocky home situation.  It was hard to work on albums of smiling faces knowing the pain that was behind many of the photographed events. Vacation plans altered, arguments argued, sadness endured.  Being a hopeful person, I purchased supplies for the wedding album I’d never made, planning to make that my next scrapbook.  My magical thinking (and two days away from a toxic relationship) brought forth a desire to chronicle the event.  Perhaps I thought preserving it on paper would preserve the marriage in life.

Hours upon returning home, my marriage essentially ended, although I spent the next year trying to resuscitate it.  By the end of the day I returned from my weekend away, the boys and I had the house to ourselves, and my separation began.

I’ve never scrapbooked since.  I’ve digitally made a few albums for family, but my supplies unused except by the boys for art projects.  The papers for my unmade wedding album collect dust on a top shelf, out of sight.  I’ve found other creative outlets in the past few years, namely knitting and writing.  I take far fewer pictures now, although thanks to the boys, the foster cats are exceptionally well documented.   The year following our separation is nearly photo-free, although my parents do have some documentation that we continued to live, smile, and enjoy life during that exceptionally hard time.

I look back on pictures from the few years preceding our divorce and wonder, “Were we happy then?”  Smiles fill the photos, but most are taken over birthday cakes and presents, or, in the case of my younger, in the presence of a cat.  Few contain all three of us.  Fewer contain their father.  And none show four people together.  It’s in the final of those photos with the two of us, the last family and couple shots, it’s those that raise the happiness question.  And the answer is often simple.  We wanted to be.  Perhaps posing for those photos, we wanted to recapture what filled our live and the albums of years long past:  love, happiness, family peace.

But those days were gone.  Separation lead to divorce.  Memories colored by years of tension distort the narrative of past, and except for the annual review of the boys’ baby albums, performed on their respective birthdays, the albums remain untouched.  Perhaps someday I’ll be able to look through without wistful tears, not for a relationship destroyed then divided but for the wholeness that even an unhappy marriage seemed to stand for.  A whole family, two parents, two kids.  Intact.  Determined to work together through the hard times.  Committed.

I know better.  I know that separate lives can lead to wholeness and health for adults and children.  I know that sometime marriage must end because it’s been put asunder in ways that can’t be healed.  And I know we’re better off.  The boys, my ex-husband, me.  It’s the image of family, an image pervading each scrapbook on the top shelf, the image of happiness together that still brings the tears.  The death of an image, marriage to one person, till death do us part.  That’s my wound, and time does help heal it, albeit slowly.  After over two years as a threesome, the boys and I have new rituals and habits, new ways of working in a different family unit.  Similarly, they’re developing new patterns in their father’s home.  We’re all finding our way.  And mostly, we’re happy.

Still, I rarely take pictures.  The boys continue to catalogue the cats, and I bring it out for birthdays and necessary blog photo-taking sessions.  But I’m not recording life in photos, and I remain scrapbook-avoidant.   As the boys grow and change, I keep prodding myself to record this time, to not create a visual black hole to match the emotional one I crawled out of last year.  But it’s hard to return to my photo-snapping years when life seemed certain and marriage seemed, well, permanent.  I’m older, wiser, and far more happy than I’ve been in many years.  The few photos I do take hold less emotional baggage than those of the previous years. They hold peace and happiness in their moments, and they hold memories of family of a different but no less worthy kind.   And that’s enough.

Riding the Waves of Change

Like most folks, I generally don’t look forward to Monday.  But after this last week, I’m ready to hit the reset button.  Now, as weeks go, I really shouldn’t complain.  The boys and I are healthy and whole.  We have a roof above our heads and food for our bodies.  The cats are back to the shelter, and the shower is relatively clean.  So why the funk?

It’s been an emotionally charged week, and I’m spent.  The boys helped their dad and his partner move into a new home this weekend, and while I’m glad to have the kids in a house and wish my ex well in his new relationship, I’m feeling rather fragile.  As my boys work their way through their rather intense and varied feelings about these coinciding changes, I’ve been picking up the pieces and trying to be a stable support.  That’s my job, after all. 

But I’m tired, sad, and a bit envious.  Tired from the emotional surges in this house as the boys prepare to start a new chapter with their dad and his girlfriend.  As much as they like her (and she seems quite kind), it’s a new relationship manage.  Just as the loss of their father from our home shook our structure two years ago, this change shakes the ground for them now.  It takes time to adjust when family size changes, and while my house isn’t the one directly in flux, the change occurring a half mile away is shaking my home.  We’ve all lost some sleep over the past few weeks, but strong feelings are more draining than the short nights.

I’m sad.  When my kids struggle with change, it’s hard on me.  I know they’re resilient creatures, but it’s hard to see my older son so anxious and angry (although he quickly admits he likes his dad’s partner, he struggles mightily with any change, especially such a personal one in his new home).  He’s cried himself sick this week, vented his rage at me repeatedly, and generally been moody, even for a thirteen-year-old.  Also, I’m sad at the loss of extended family that’s occurred since my divorce, although the relationships were never terribly close.  The loss is still painful.

Finally, and most bothering to me, is my envy.  I’m envious of the new start they share, of the excitement about forming family.  I’m envious of the rather carefree relationship they seem to have with the woman they’ll share a home with.   For my two years solo with my boys, I’ve been the one to remind them to practice piano and do their school work.  I’ve told them to brush their teeth, put away their dishes, mow the lawn, pick up their socks, get ready for church/karate/piano/errands/appointments/bed.  While their father puts them through some paces, the bulk of their responsibilities occur here, at home, under my charge.   In comes a new woman, not mom, not nagging, and, from all reports, fun.  What’s not to like?  And I do want them to like her, but I’m feeling a bit stale and boring in comparison. 

So I’m trying to just ride the energy of my feelings, allowing them to come and go like waves in the ocean.  The seas will calm, both in the boys’ emotions and in my own.  Like my boys, transitions are hard for me, and so many transitions have entered my life in the past few months.  As I’ve experimented with chant and have been reading Russill Paul’s book, The Yoga of Sound, I’ve learned the technique of picking a core mantra, a repeated phrase that I can use to enter meditation and to focus.  After some consideration, I chose Om Namah Shivaya, a Sanskrit phrase basically opening one to change.  So I’m trying to be open, to see these changes and inevitable and even welcome parts of life, which is personally challenging. 

But tonight I’m worn.  I’ll ride the wave, but I’m wishing for rest of body, spirit, and mind.  I’m looking toward Monday for a week with ordinary happenings but knowing that change will continue to stir our waters.  And that’s how it should be, even when I’m tired, sad, and envious.  Om Namah Shivaya.